Sunday, December 03, 2006

Perils of State Soft Paternalism

Tibor R. Machan

Jim Holt discusses the recent debate about soft paternalism, in his essay in this Sunday's, New York Times Magazine. His “The New, Soft Paternalism” is a fair and pretty thorough account of the debate about whether people have multiple selves of which some may be wiser than others and it does a decent job of considering whether the wiser selves we have ought to get government support, as when states limit gambling or other easily abused activities by their citizens. Holt comes out in favor of the government’s lending a hand to our wiser selves in the end. Here is how he put his conclusion:

“But what if you are one of those people who rely on more mundane stratagems, like self-binding? The general problem you face (as put by the political theorist Jon Elster [a member of the analytical Marxist school, by the way]) is this: For a given uphill goal and a given strength of will, does there exist a path, however circuitous, that will get you to the top of the hill? By adding a new path here and there, state soft paternalism makes it more likely that the answer will be yes.”

A couple of preliminaries. Invoking David Hume’s idea of the totally—indeed, impossibly—fragmented human self is a non-starter here. For Hume the idea was to show that is no self but he advance the notion merely as a reductio absurdum argument against radical empiricism, to show that simply relying on our senses gets us nowhere in trying to understand anything, including ourselves. Of course we have different ideas and desires, with some of us remaining intact over time while others waffling about with no integrity at all. Yet even the worst of us, with the most discombobulated personalities and unhinged character, can have some good moments during which we try to set about straightening our who we will be henceforth--just think of all the New Year's resolutions here. And, yes, a bit of push from peers and institutions may help when such folks are ready to lapse once again.

Now it might be tempting to do what Jim Holt, on the advice of Jon Elster, is proposing, get the state involved here. State soft-paternalism has its greatest appeal not because of its successes and because good theory supports it, quite the contrary. It appeals because of the powerful governmental habit that has been powerfully cultivated in the human race from time immemorial. This is a bit akin to the root idea behind paternalism—"parents know best." And that’s right for most kids, of course; for adults, however, it is a disabling, inept approach to dealing with life and gives dangerous powers to governments.

The governments of most societies have, of course, sold themselves to the people as their parents—or uncles or nannies—who have nothing but the best interest of their children, the people, in mind. Kings notoriously justified themselves along these lines, as have dictators. What differentiates democratic governments is merely the fact that they work by a process of decisions-by-committee and there are numerous competing committees vying to dominate until in the end a decision is reached that supposedly has had the benefit of extensive discussion. Of course, the decision will be coercively imposed but, presumably, wiser then many private decisions would be.

Now this is the kind of view that began to be questioned with the writings of Baruch Spinoza. Thomas Hobbes, writing just a bit before Spinoza, made the mistake of trusting the democratically selected absolute monarch, arguing, like Holt and Elster, that people want themselves to be ruled and a king or government is just who should do the ruling. But as Spinoza began to suggest and, later, classical liberals like John Locke, Adam Smith, and a host of others began to warn us, governments aren’t made up of angels but people. People with the crucial added attribute that makes it easy to yield to bad temptations, namely, power over other people.

In the 20th century Jim Buchanan and Gordon Tullock finally put the idea into a fully developed theory called "Public Choice" which argued that politicians and bureaucrats will routinely pursue their own agendas, not those assigned to them by the people via the democratic process. Now this pretty much means that entrusting government to engage in benign soft paternalism is futile.

Yes, some people could benefit from this if it could be counted upon—although that alone doesn’t make it good public policy either—but counting upon government to administer soft paternalism without corruption, without abuse, is the big mistake embraced by the likes of Jim Holt, Jon Elster, and, sadly, millions of others across the globe.

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